Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas

After yet another delay with the bus out of Flagstaff, we drove on through the afternoon and into the night. The desert landscape looked as empty as ever for most of the journey, but I could tell when the bus was drawing closer to Las Vegas by the signs and flashing lights that became ever more frequent on the side of the road. Eventually the sparse surroundings gave way to more buildings, and soon the roads were aglow as the streetlights began lighting up the night. I’d messaged ahead to let my host know I would be late, so he was waiting for me outside the bus depot when it finally pulled into Las Vegas.

The story of how I ended up where I ended up in Las Vegas is a typical example of the networking that happens and the connections you make when you’re backpacking. Back when I was travelling from Cambodia back to Thailand on the original bus ride from hell, I had been left waiting for a bus to take me from the Cambodian/Thai border back to Bangkok with a handful of other travellers. Sitting on white plastic chairs in the hot tropical morning sun, I had gotten chatting with a girl named Ashley. We bonded over the complete logistical nightmare we had found ourselves in, and began comparing our experiences as travellers in Cambodia. From her accent, I could clearly tell that Ashley was North American, but she was actually the first to ask whereabouts in the world I was from.
“You’re from Sydney? No way!” she’d said when I told her where I hailed from. “That’s where I’m heading after my travelling in Thailand.” I told her that I wouldn’t be back in Australia for many more months, since at that stage I was less than two months into my journey, but never-the-less we decided to exchange contact details so that we could keep in touch, and that I when she finally arrived in Sydney I might be able to help her out in some way.
“And how about you? You’re from the US, right?”
“Yep, I come from Las Vegas,” she said with a smile.
“Vegas? Like, you actually live there?” For all the crazy stories and parties I’d heard about happening in Las Vegas, I don’t think I could ever recall meeting someone who actually lived there. But it just so happened to be Ashley’s hometown, and she told me to let her know if I was ever heading that way – even if she wasn’t around, she said she’d be more than happy to hook me up with some of her friends back home. At that stage I had absolutely no idea what my plans for the USA were, but I told her that I’d be in touch if I ever found myself headed there.

***

Fast forward to roughly 7 months later and Ashley’s friend Ly was greeting my as I hopped off the bus in Las Vegas. It was a Friday night, so as we drove back to his place he told me that he had a bunch of people coming over later that night to celebrate a friends birthday, and that they would be heading out to the nearby Downtown area of Las Vegas. I was fairly ignorant to the geography of the city, and soon learned that the typical Vegas that you see on postcards and in movies is all located at “The Strip”. That’s also where most of the hotels are, and therefore where most of the tourists can be found. However, tonight I would be seeing Las Vegas through the eyes of the locals. When we arrived, Ly introduced me to his housemate Chris and their dogs Button and Roxie, and then showed me where I would be sleeping. It was a long room that had three double beds, but without any bed frames, so they had all been pushed together to form one kind of super bed.
“We have people crashing here pretty regularly, so we have a lot of room on stand-by”, Ly explained to me. As tempting as it was to just collapse in the the sea of blankets and pillows, I threw my stuff down by the edge of the super mattress and headed to the bathroom to freshen up. I knew if I laid down now I probably wouldn’t get back up, and there’d be plenty of time to sleep after Friday night.

After getting ready I headed out to the kitchen, where Ly made me a drink and introduced me to the people who had arrived so far. By morning I would have forgotten most of their faces and all of their names, but they were all friendly enough, and when Ly told them that I had ended up there through connections with Ashley, they all either rolled their eyes or sighed, exclaiming “Of course he knows Ashley!” Before turning to me and asking: “Where is she now?”
“Um, I think she’s in Sydney?”
“In Australia? Nice! Is that where you met here?”
“Ah, no. I actually met her in… Cambodia? Well, technically Thailand, I guess.”
“You were in Thailand? Wait, when was Ashley in Thailand?” Apparently, to this group of people, Ashley was what I had become to my own friends back home – that traveller who’s been gone so long that no one’s really sure where she even was anymore. I smiled and wondered what my friends would have been saying about me in a similar situation back home – although in reality it hadn’t been that long since I’d seen some of them in New York.

After a few strong cocktails and a round of “Happy Birthday” for the birthday girl, we piled into a couple of cars and drove the very short distance to the main bar area of Downtown Vegas. First we had a couple of drinks in a bar called Griffin, before moving next door to a place called Commonwealth. The bars were cool, but they seemed more like dive bars, and nothing about them screamed anything remotely lavish or extravagant, or anything I’d come to understand as being stereotypically Vegas. In fact, I couldn’t even see any gambling machines. I’d soon learn that many of the people who actually live in Las Vegas are performers who spend most of their working lives around the strip surrounded by that kind of environment. On their nights off, they just want to escape to a normal bar like everyone else. Not to say that the place wasn’t going off, because it was definitely packed out. I got separated from my gang as we crossed the dance floor to get to the other side of the club, and as I was scanning the room to see where they’d gone, the girl in front of me turned around and thrust a shot glass towards me.
“Here, we got an extra shot!” she yelled over the music. “It’s Fireball!” I’d been sampling Fireball whiskey all along my journey through the Southwest, and I’d become quite a fan, so I didn’t really give it a second thought before throwing the shot back and continuing my way across the dance floor – it was the first of many free drinks that I’d be scoring over my weekend in this city.

I eventually caught up with Ly and the rest of the group, and I hung out with them for a while, although it wasn’t that easy to have a conversation with all the loud music. It was also the first straight club that I had been in for quite a while, which might sound kind of petty, but when you’ve been touring the world and mostly sampling the gay bars in the each city you visit, the general difference in atmosphere is startlingly obvious. When the girl whose birthday it was got up to go to the bathroom, I was left sitting with a group of boys who all started up a conversation about her.
“Is she seeing anyone? Do you think she’s gonna hook up with anyone?” They were throwing around that sort of weirdly uncomfortable banter, which I wasn’t that interested in anyway, but between them I heard assertions of platonic friendship, as well as a few of the guys deciding who was in the best position to “take a shot” at getting with her. Then, in what played out in my mind as some kind of bad punchline, they turned to me.
“How about you, man? You think she’s hot?”
I literally choked on my drink, and awkwardly cleared my throat after regaining my breath. “Um… Ashley… Ashley didn’t mention to any of you that I was gay, did she?”
There was a split second of blank, awkward stares, followed by a round of embarrassed laughter and “Sorry, man!” before returning to the eventual topic of who was going to, at least in their minds, ‘get the girl’.

Downtown Las Vegas.

Downtown Las Vegas.

***

I’m sure they were probably lovely guys and were possibly just joking around, not taking anything they were saying too seriously. I didn’t really feel like sticking around to find out though. I’d somehow lost Ly through all this, and between drinks at home, not really having eaten dinner, a few drinks in the club plus the surprise Fireball shot, I was actually quite drunk. And so I did what any drunk gay man who is having an average time in a straight bar would do – I found some wifi, did a quick Google search, and directed myself to the nearest gay bar. Which didn’t actually seem too far away… on Google Maps, at least. It was about a 15 minute walk, which isn’t that far, really, except that it was a lot colder outside than I had realised. And instead of walking along busy streets with other shops, bars and people, my directions took me down some pretty empty, suburban looking streets. But I’d come so far that I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I might be lost and turn around, so on through the cold I trudged.

As it would happen, I wasn’t lost at all, and I found Snicks Place exactly where it was supposed to be. Except when I opened the doors, I was greeted by an empty room. I’m not even exaggerating. There wasn’t a single patron in this bar. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I certainly wasn’t ready to face the cold again, so I wandered in to find the bar and order a drink. It turned out that there was one patron at Snicks Place – the bartender and his friend were having a casual chat across the bar, and they both looked genuinely surprised to see me when I approached them. They asked me how my night was going, so I relayed my entire afternoon, from arriving in Las Vegas to drinking with my straight friends of a friend of a friend to finally making my way here. I guess it’s not every night that a young drunk Australian walks into the oldest gay bar in Las Vegas, which happened to be almost deserted, because the two guys were very interested in hearing all about my life and my travels. At least, I assume they were. In all honesty, I was pretty intoxicated by that point. But they still poured me another drink, and showed me how to work some of the gambling machines. My only experience with gambling had been the electronic poker machines in the bars back in Sydney, but this bar had all kinds of random gambling games and machines that I had never even seen before. I’m not much of a gambler, but there wasn’t really much else to do in the bar, so I had a go at them while I chatted to the two guys.

Eventually I must have started to give away just how drunk I was, because the bartender asked whereabouts I was staying. I had written Ly’s address down in my phone, but he seemed shocked that I wasn’t staying in a hotel or the more usual tourist accommodation. Then I mentioned Ly by name, and the bartenders face lit up in recognition.
“You’re staying with Ly?”
“Yeah! You know him?”
“Yeah, we’re all locals around here. Why don’t I give him call, maybe he can come pick you up?”
I think I was falling asleep at the bar by the time Ly arrived. I was so embarrassed and apologised profusely for him having to come and get me, but he just laughed it off and said it was nothing. He was a decent guy, and he didn’t seem to mind. He drove me home and helped me into the room, where there were two girls who passed out on the mega mattress. I crawled into my edge of the bed and passed out, scolding myself for being such a fool for wandering off aimlessly into the night, but promising myself that I’d do better with exploring Las Vegas tomorrow.

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New York Nights: reflections under the disco ball

I’d done my fair share of nightlife exploring when I was in New York City, although I think it’s safe to say I barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It’s just too big, and there’s too much going on, that I doubt you could see it all in a year, let alone a month. However, one thing I think that I can safely assert from my brief time there is that you really have to have a plan of attack, and know where the parties of the evening are and where you want to go. Despite having a huge amount of fun on my birthday – probably due to the company I was with than the places I went to – it’s hard to deny that the night was in a relatively high degree shambles due to a lack of planning. We just drank ourselves stupid and gallivanted around Hell’s Kitchen hoping for the best. But the following weekend I was celebrating Ralf’s birthday with him, and since he doesn’t drink, I too drank considerably less, and therefore my experiences of the nightlife were substantially different. Possibly due to the fact that I simply remember a lot more, but what’s a few shots between four hour memory blanks?

Being the Berliner that he is, Ralf was never in a rush to get to any of the parties on time. I had to negotiate a happy medium of not leaving too early, but not leaving so late that we were stuck in hour long queues around the block just to get inside. In the absence of alcohol I ended up drinking quite a bit of Red Bull to keep myself pumped up until it was finally time to get going. I’d done some event scouting through some of the promoters who I’d come across on my earlier nights out in New York, which is how Ralf and I eventually found ourselves at VIVA – supposedly the biggest Saturday night gay party in Manhattan. It was where Jesse and I considered going the previous week, but… well… that obviously didn’t happen. Anyway, VIVA was supposed to be incredible, multiple floors full of hot guys, strong drinks and good music. Ralf didn’t seem as keen on the idea of pop music, but I gave him a playful shove and told him to leave his Berlin attitude at the door. He agreed that as long he could dance, he would be happy.

And for what it’s worth, it was pretty great party. As the evening continued on the place became packed, and under the giant disco balls and flashing lights writhed a sea of sweaty, shirtless homosexuals. Ralf and I started out dancing together, but during one of my excursions to the bar I lost him, and since we were both foreigners neither of our phones worked particularly well. I kept my eye out for him, but eventually resigned to the fact that I had lost him in the sea of hot and sticky flesh, so I continued dancing on my own.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

***

At some point in the evening I took a break from the dancing, and retreated to the upstairs level, with an open balcony that looked down over the dance floor below. I perched over the edge of the railing and peered down below, trying to see if I could spot Ralf among the crowd. There were just too many people though, and my efforts were futile. After a while of standing there, a man beside me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey… I think I recognise your face. Did I see you here last week?”
I had barely paid any attention to the man standing there, so I turned to look at his face, which was completely unfamiliar.
“No… No, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Really? I could swear I saw you here last week?”
Internally I smirked at what was an obvious pick up line, but instead I just politely smiled. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. I wasn’t here last week.”
He laughed, almost a little embarrassed. “Okay, I lied. I’ve never seen you either. Though I’m glad I’ve seen you now…” It was also at that point, I think, that he noticed my accent. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope. Sydney, Australia.”
“Ah, Australian. Nice.” He then turned to face the out towards the crowd. “So what do you think of the party? Having fun?”
I turned to look down at the dance floor, examining all the dancing bodes, still no sign of Ralf. “Yeah, it’s pretty a cool. Huge space.”
“Anything like this in Sydney?”
“Well…” I had to reflect back on Oxford Street, my nights at ARQ, and the countless nights I’d danced away there. “Sort of, but… not really. Not like this. This is different.”
He smiled to himself, then turned back to face me. “The go go dancers are about to start upstairs. Have you been up there?”
“There’s another level?” This place as bigger than I had realised. The man just chuckled at that.
“Would you like a drink?”

Dancing under disco balls.

Dancing under disco balls.

I’d given up on ever finding Ralf again this evening, so I decided to go with him and accept the offer. He was a bit older than me, and nothing that special to look at, but I was quite enjoying the banter we had going between us. On the way to the bar he said he had to make one more stop. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the DJ booth and sound control box while he was talking to a few people who looked like they were in control of whatever displays were going on out over the dance floor. It didn’t quite sink in at first, but in retrospect it should have been pretty obvious why this guy was asking probing questions about how much I liked the event – we was one of the major event coordinators and promoters. He gave me the grand tour of the whole venue, and we chatted to each other for a long time. He had a lot of questions, and myself and what I was doing, and he seemed to be impressed by whatever charisma I managed to exhibit.

“So, what brings you to New York, Robert?”
“I’m just travelling around. Backpacking. Only here for one more week.”
He seemed genuinely disappointed. “That’s a shame. You seem like a really cool guy. You know, if you were staying, I think there’d definitely be a place on my staff for you.”
I scoffed at that. “What, really? As a promoter? Why?”
“I think you’d be great. You seem interesting, but real. Not pretentious. We try to throw great parties, but the one thing we’re not is pretentious.” The conversation was partially lost in the music that throbbed in the air around us, but I found his assertions a little hard to swallow. All throughout my numerous nights out in New York, ‘pretentious’ was definitely a word that stuck out in my mind as a perfect adjective to describe what I’d seen, especially in the gay bars and parties. The way everyone in these clubs and parties seemed to carry themselves, the way they talked, the way they danced like they were God’s gift to gay men – there was just something about the nightlife I’d experienced that almost turned me off it completely. It was almost as though everyone was trying too hard to impress everyone else to even have any real fun. But perhaps that was just me overanalysing everything, because this guy seemed completely genuine when we assured me they were all about keeping it real.

Maybe it was because I grew up in a comparatively small city – not everyone in Sydney has moved from the suburbs in a dreamy pursuit of fame, fashion, riches and glory. At a previous night out with Jesse and Georgia, at an event that I guess had been organised by the guy I was now speaking to, I’d chatted with a guy who was attending.
“Yeah, I didn’t really nice Sydney. It was boring,” he told me when I mentioned where I was from.
“Oh, well… yeah I guess sometimes you just have to know where to go, right?” I maintained composure, but tried to come to the city’s defence. “Some places are better than other at certain times. I mean, I’ve had some average nights out here, just because I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
“No,” he just replied, with a sour, bored look on his face. “It was just wasn’t very good.”
And that really annoyed me. Sure, Sydney is no New York, but it had been my home for the past 22 years and I’d had some amazing nights out on the town there, and had more fun than I could possibly quantify. And I certainly wasn’t going to let some perpetually pouting wannabe model who probably grew up in Nebraska tell me that my hometown was objectively boring based on his sole experiences. I think it was at that moment that I was well and truly over the attitude of arrogance that I was finding among so many people that I met in New York, particularly in these gay venues. There was so much inflated self-importance that you could have gathered the heads of everyone in the room and used them in place of helium balloons at a child’s birthday party.

But here, at VIVA, I found myself with a guy who seemed so genuine in his belief that there was nothing pretentious in the way they flaunted their parties, and that they were just there to have a good time, and not necessarily impress anyone. I guess it really is a subjective matter, and I won’t claim that all these parties or all these people are the same. This was just my experience. He was a nice enough guy all the same, and at the end of the night I even got a behind-the-scenes tour of the building before heading back to his place in Chelsea with him to crash. I slept there for most of the morning and afternoon, mostly because it was so unbelievably quiet compared to Melissa’s apartment in Midtown.

***

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The following evening I headed out again with Ralf, this time settling for some of the regular bars rather than any big parties that were going on for the Labor Day long weekend. The guy I’d met last night offered to get me on a list to whatever party he was throwing that night, but I politely declined, mostly knowing I wanted to spend more time with Ralf, but also because I don’t think I could take another event like that. I met Ralf, and he told me how he had ended up at some after party the previous evening. We ended up going to Industry, where I had been at some point on the night of my birthday. I have to admit that as impressive at the big parties and been, I much preferred dancing to trashy 90s pop – cue eye roll from Ralf – in a regular gay bar, there the resident drag queen started a conga line and interrupted the regular DJ program to host yet another twerking contest, a fad that was taking the world by storm at the time. But it got me thinking that maybe the party promoters weren’t pretentious. Maybe it was just me, and that simply wasn’t my scene. Maybe I was just a simple boy from a relatively modest city who likes a simple bar and the simple pleasures of dancing with a friend without feeling like I’m competing to be the hottest piece of meat on the dance floor. Maybe I’m just not ready for the likes of New York City. But if that’s what I was missing out on, then I guess I’m okay with that.

Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made

Upon returning to New York City from my brief trip to New Jersey, it hit me that this was going to be my very last week in New York, and the next time I left the Big Apple it was going to be with all my worldly possessions in tow, and no future return date in sight. There were a few tourist attractions and activities that I was yet to see and do – partly because I might have been a little bit lazy, but also because I was waiting for a fellow tourist to see and do them with. Back in Berlin, as well as talking about my previous travels, I’d also chatted to Ralf about my travel plans for the future.
“And then after the UK it’s off to the USA! I’m going to have my birthday in New York with one of my best friends.” At the time, I thought it was only Georgia who I was going to be seeing for my birthday – I was completely oblivious to my planned birthday surprise.
“Ah, very nice,” Ralf said with a smile. “I’ve also got a trip planned to New York later this year, actually. I’ll also be there for my birthday.”
“Really? When is your birthday?”
“October 9th.”
“No way! Mine’s October 6th!” And that was how Ralf and I discovered that, completely by chance, we were both going to be in New York at the same time. I guess that’s why when we said farewell in Amsterdam after our weekend at pride, it didn’t really feel like goodbye. We both knew it was simply ‘See you in a few months!’

***

So the afternoon that I arrived back in New York, I helped Melissa carry some things she had brought home from New Jersey up to her apartment, but then set off to meet Ralf for the afternoon. He was staying with a friend over in Chelsea, so we decided to meet at The High Line. The High Line is an old train line that has been converted into a long park that stretches more than two kilometres down the western side of Manhattan. I’d visited it a couple of times during my time in New York – once by myself and once with Jesse – but it’s a beautiful place that sits above the hustle and bustle of street level, offering views of the city, yet somehow also a peacefulness that comes with your removal from it, so I didn’t mind returning for another visit.

It was a little surreal to meet up with Ralf again. Meeting him a second time in Berlin had felt relatively normal, since that was where we’d first met, but to sneak up behind him and surprise him on a street corner in lower Manhattan felt like I’d found a glitch in the universe or something. But we hugged like old friends before proceeding to climb the stairs and walk along the High Line, catching each other up on the last few months while taking in the scenery and the artwork that was spread out along the thin, narrow park.

The New York City High Line.

The New York City High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

That afternoon was actually Ralf’s birthday, and although he was trying to not make a big deal about turning 40, I managed to convince him he at least needed a cake, which we shared that evening with the friends who he was staying with. It was still early in the week though, and we decided we’d wait for the weekend before going out dancing to celebrate.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

***

The next couple of days I caught up with Ralf again to do a bit of final sightseeing in New York City. We decided that we wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and possibly explore some of Brooklyn. The following day we arranged to meet at a halfway point between both our homes and go from there. We met at Maddison Square Park, but when I started to brainstorm how we could get to lower Manhattan to cross the bridge over to Brooklyn, Ralf said, “Why don’t we walk?”
“Uhhh…” I was hesitant. “It’s kind of a long way?”
“I’m not that old yet,” he joked. “We’re both fit and healthy, right?”
“Uh… sure, yeah. I guess we can walk. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

As it turns out, Ralf has a horrible sense of direction and geographical awareness. I can’t really tell you how we came to the decision, but we decided to walk to the edge of the island and then head south along the bank of the East River. There were some nice views of the various bridges, but when I kept checking our location via the blinking blue dot on the Google Maps app, I was concerned at how little progress we were making in the scheme of things as we walked along. Don’t get me wrong – it was actually a nice walk, and we talked and caught up the whole time, but October was coming along and the days weren’t as warm as they had been when I’d first hit the east coast of the USA. This day in particular was a little bit chilly with a fair bit of wind.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there's almost always something interesting to see.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there’s almost always something interesting to see.

To cut a long story short, it took us almost two hours to get to the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge. At which point we had to stop and rest our feet for a little while.
“Why didn’t you tell it was such a long walk?” Ralf said with a cheeky smile, and I just rolled my eyes and told myself I’d probably needed the exercise. And then we set out to cross the bridge, which actually offers some beautiful views of Downtown Manhattan and the Financial District.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge itself is no walk in the park, and we even had to stop halfway across, partly to enjoy the views but also because we had been on our feet and walking for quite a few hours now. By the time we reached Brooklyn it was already starting to get late in the afternoon. After finding a place to eat and having an extremely late lunch, we were both too exhausted to do too much more walking.
“And we are definitely taking the subway back to Manhattan,” I said sternly when we decided to head home. I wouldn’t make the mistake of listening to Ralf’s judgements of distance again, plus I’d grown so accustomed to the NYC subway over the last month, I found it almost comforting. And as for Brooklyn itself, I never really got another chance to explore it. However, I knew that this was only my first time in New York, and definitely not my last, so I vowed to explore the streets of Brooklyn next time I visited the Big Apple.

Welcome to Brooklyn!

***

Ralf and I spent another afternoon heading down to the southern tip of Manhattan (via the subway this time, of course) to make a trip even further south on the Staten Island Ferry. Melissa used to live on Staten Island, and while everyone had assured me that there wasn’t a lot to do there, it was a nice (and free) ferry ride which once again provided excellent views of the Financial District in all it’s tall and shiny glory.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

A few people had told me that it wasn’t worth sticking around on Staten Island, and that once they’d herded you off the boat it was better to just turn around and march right back on. Defiant and determined to find something actually likeable about Staten Island, Ralf and I decided to had have a wander around. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Staten Island, it’s just that Manhattan (because Staten Island technically is still part of New York City) is hard act to follow. Most of Staten Island just seemed to be residential. There weren’t even that many shops – just a corner store here and there and a café or two. There’s is a museum on the island, at least, but it didn’t seem to be that interesting, and we weren’t even going to go inside. But as we turned to walk away, a woman came running out to tell us that entrance was free after 5pm, so we shrugged our shoulders and headed back for a quick scope around, and learnt a little bit about the history of the ferry and the history of Staten Island as a part of New York City. Which was interesting enough, but… overall, if we had turned around and hopped straight back on the ferry, we wouldn’t have been missing much.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

 ***

Of all the sightseeing that one just has to do in New York, I think I must have saved the most important for the very last. There are – at least in my opinion – three major towers in Manhattan: the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building. Each of them offers stunning panoramic views over the concrete jungle, but there’s really no need to go to the top of all of them – so how do you choose which one to visit? I spent a long time (i.e. my whole life until arriving in New York) believing that the Chrysler Building was actually the Empire State Building. I’d seen more pictures of the former, but I was so familiar with the name of the latter that the two became conflated in my mind.
“That’s because so many photos are actually taken from the top of the Empire State Building – that’s why you never see it,” was the explanation I was offered, and put that way, I guess it makes perfect sense. So using that logic, and knowing that there were three buildings, I convinced Ralf that the Rockefeller Center should be the tower the picked. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it looked like, and climbing to the top of it would offer views of the two towers that I did know.

Walking around New York City, you definitely get a feeling of how big the place is. It seems to stretch on forever, and one wrong turn and you find yourself lost in a place or street or suburb that you never knew even existed. But a trip to ‘The Top of the Rock’ only served to confirm these feelings that New York is an infinite city that stretches almost as far as the imagination.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

Ralf and I lined up to get our tickets and, after watching a short presentation about the Rockefeller family, the building they created and their place in American history, hopped into an elevator that would take us to the upper reaches of the Rockefeller Center. Even the inside of the elevator was fascinating – the roof was made of glass, and as the little box you stood inside zoomed upwards, rows of lights that lined the shaft wall came racing towards you like shooting stars.

The tower we were about to go up.

The tower we were about to go up.

Looking up - inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

Looking up – inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

But once we were on top, the views were breathtaking. To the north was Central Park, and for the first time I think I really appreciated just how huge it really is. It’s just massive. And to think, it’s only a fraction of Manhattan itself. To the south, the Empire State Building rose up from the street, the afternoon sun turning it into a silhouette as it began to set into the west. Words really fail to describe the immensity that surrounds you when you’re standing there, or just how tiny and insignificant you can feel when all that is New York City rises up out of the ground around you. Part of you is on top of the world, but all that you see just reminds you that you’re just another part of it. It’s a rush to be up there, but I somehow also found the experience very humbling.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

However, here's a tip: Top of the Rock doesn't actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

However, here’s a tip: Top of the Rock doesn’t actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

Ralf and I spent a long time up there, just wandering around and taking in the epic views. When it was finally time to come down, we debriefed and unwound with a walk through Central Park. After having seen it from the air, I had a greater appreciation of just how big the park was. We set off without a plan and no real direction, and soon we were lost, taking new turns and discovering new locations in the dying sunlight.

Strolling through Central Park.

Strolling through Central Park.

Night setting in over NYC.

Night setting in over NYC.

We even stumbled across the huge lakes up on the northern side of the park – that I recognised so vividly from episodes of Gossip Girl, as well as a host of other TV shows and movies – but unfortunately by that stage it was too dark to capture any good photographs. Once night fully set in, we decided that Central Park was potentially not the safest place to be, so we made a beeline for the subway, and made our way home. It had been nice having Ralf there – an unexpected surprise that had allowed me to indulge in some of the more touristic elements of New York City. Sometimes I felt like a gushing tourist, but then I know too many locals who feel exactly the same way about their home to feel too badly about it. Because let’s face it – New York is a pretty incredible city.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22”

As my Amtrak train chugged through upstate New York, I watched the scenery pass me by. Back where I grew up, changes between the seasons were relatively mild compared to some other parts of the world. The eastern coast of Australia is populated by a lot of evergreen trees that generally don’t lose their leaves during the winter, but the eastern coast of North America was a different story entirely. The autumn equinox had occurred while I’d been in Canada, and summer was officially over. As my New York City bound train travelled through the woods, I could see that the trees surrounding us had already taken on hues of red, yellow and orange, and the normally green scenery was combined with a wash of natural fiery tones. It was something that I had only seen happen very sparsely in my own country, so I soaked in the sight and enjoyed the novelty of it all. It certainly made for a pleasant visual accompaniment on my trek back to the smog of the Big Apple.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

Returning to Manhattan almost felt like coming home. After casually jumping on the S Train across town to Grand Central Station, receiving a friendly welcome from Brandon the doorman as I arrived at the apartment, and letting myself in to wait for Melissa to get home so I could tell her all about my trip, I realised just how much time I had spent here in the the last month. “Home is where the heart is”, as the old adage goes, and there in that moment I don’t think anything could have rang more true in my mind. After being on the road for so long you start to believe that you’ve lost all concept of home, but the reality is that if you have the right attitude, and surround yourself with the right people, anywhere can feel like home – no matter how brief or temporary a home it may be.

***

While I’d been keen to get back and see my New Yorker friends like Melissa and Stefon, there was also another reason why returning to the city this time had been such an incredibly exciting prospect. Georgia, one of my best and dearest friends from back home, had been doing her own tour across the USA for the past couple of months, and now she and her friend Eva had arrived in NYC, just days before my birthday. She’d kept warning me that she had a surprise for me, but that she couldn’t wait until my birthday and would have to give it to me as soon as she saw me. It was well into the evening when I arrived back in NYC, and Georgia had some final plans with the girls who she had been on the tour with, so we made plans to meet the next day at Grand Central Station.

I could barely contain my excitement as I almost ran the few blocks up Lexington Avenue, and it was almost surreal to see her big golden curls of hair and big smile waiting for me by one of the subway exits.
“Oh my God! How are you, baby?” Georgia said as I threw my arms around her and hugged her tight for at least a solid minute. “It’s been so long!”
“I know! I’ve missed you!”
“Let’s never be apart for that long again, okay?”
“Deal.” And just like that, within moments, our casual banter had returned, almost as though we hadn’t been separated for the last six months. I guess that’s the sign of a true friendship.
“So, tell me everything. What’s been going on? How was Canada? How was Stuart?” We set off walking down the street as Georgia bombarding me with questions.
“Canada was great! It was really nice to-”
I was cut off mid-sentence, startled as someone bumped into me from behind. New Yorkers can be very pushy when it comes to their pavement etiquette, and for a moment I thought I might have been in the wrong somehow. “Ah, I’m sorry I-”
“Hey, watch where you’re going next time, fool!” I might have been more offended if the words hadn’t come from a very familiar face.
“Oh… Oh my God. Oh my God!” The person who had bumped into me was my other best friend, Jesse, who was – to the best of my knowledge – still in Australia. “What are you doing here?!”
“Surprise!” Georgia said with a sheepish grin, and suddenly it all made sense.
“We’ve been planning this the moment Georgia booked her tickets,” Jesse said. “I called her up and told her, ‘If you think I’m gonna let you and Robert be in New York City without me, then you’ve got another thing coming!’ The three of us are in the greatest city in the world, your birthday is coming up, and this place isn’t gonna know what hit it!”

***

Apparently everyone had been in on the surprise – from Ellie in London to Stuart in Montreal, and even all of our mutual friends on Facebook – everyone had known about the surprise, and nobody had let the secret slip. Jesse had blocked me on Facebook under the guise that he was “taking a break” from social media, so I’d had no idea of his whereabouts.
The three of us had lunch together and caught up about everything we’d been doing in the past few months, sharing travel horror stories and laughing both at and with each other. Afterwards we decided to visit the Museum of Sex, and as we browsed the halls of artworks and exhibitions we made crass jokes and probably nearly got ourselves thrown out on a handful of separate occasions. But I’d been reunited with some of my most favourite people in the whole world, so right now where I was at was definitely starting to feel like home.

Reunited with my best friends.

Reunited with my best friends.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

And the reason why we can't have nice things.

And the reason why we can’t have nice things.

Over the next few days, it was the little things that made the time around my birthday so special. Whether it was stumbling across a little street market with Jesse and Georgia, where we bought a variety of fresh mini donuts and sat and ate them in the sunshine at Madison Square Park; or when Jesse and I bought $15 tickets to an Iggy Azalea gig at a gay bar on a Friday night; or when we trudged around Midtown for over an hour looking for a place that would cut our hair for $20 instead of $100; or when all three of us visited a phoney psychic just off Times Square, who told us we were all troubled people with shady pasts and dark futures, so we retreated back to Georgia and Eva’s Air BnB apartment with margarita mix to watch The Little Mermaid and feel sorry for ourselves – there are a whole heap of fun and slightly bizarre memories that made it a special week for me.

New York City with my best friends.

New York City with my best friends.

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again...

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again…

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event...

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event…

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

***

When it came to the actual weekend of my birthday, I had a few more intercity and international surprises. Mischa was making a second trip down from Baltimore to join the birthday celebrations, and I even received a little surprise from Ireland. Well, in the end I knew to expect something, since Matthew had asked for my address in New York several times over the past two weeks, obviously anxious as to whether whatever he had ordered would arrive. In the end a package arrived that was addressed to both Melissa and myself, so I know that had to be it. True to his national pride, he’d had a bottle of Coole Swan delivered to me.
“It’s like Baileys, but better,” he’d told when I finally wrote to him saying I’d received it. “Gotta have a little bit of something Irish on your birthday, no?” I could almost hear his accent in my head as I read the words, and imagined that cheeky, playful grin of his.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

The actual day of my 22nd birthday fell on a Sunday, so we decided that we’d go out on the Saturday night for the big celebration. Melissa had offered to have all our friends from far and wide over at her apartment, so that evening Georgia, Eva, Jesse, Mischa, Stefon, Nirali and Melanie, another friend of Melissa’s, all came over to join in the festivities. Melissa and Nirali cooked an amazing dinner, and we all caught up over food and drinks. I was surrounded by so many beautiful people, friends both old and new, and it really was a fantastic evening.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

The meal was delicious, and in true Australian fashion the drinks were flowing freely. Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t over 21, so he wasn’t able to join us when we eventually headed out, and a few other people didn’t end up making it to the clubs. We had vague plans, but I’d be lying if I said there was an overall aim to the night. I was in bar called Therapy with Melissa and Nirali, dropping my phone all over the floor and dancing like a hot mess for over half an hour before they managed to tell me that the rest of our friends still weren’t here yet. Jesse, Georgia and Eva had someone gotten lost, and we ended up meeting them in another place just across the road called Industry. From that point on, my memory of where I was, who I was with and what I was drinking became a pretty intense blur. All I know is that I was definitely having fun.

The one vivid memory I have is stumbling out of somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen with Jesse, jumping into a cab and screaming at the driver to drive. I don’t know where we told him to go, and I don’t even remember where he ended up taking us. But as we sped down a road through the West Village, we hung our heads out of the taxi windows and howled to the moon like wolves, shouting at the top of our lungs. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the taxi driver had stopped and told us to get out, and I know it’s a hideous cliché, but in that moment I felt absolutely, 100% alive. Young, dumb, drunk and free of cares, at least I was never going to look back on my life and regret that I had wasted my youth.

The morning after - birthday brunch.

The morning after – birthday brunch.

I woke up at noon, curled up on the couch with Jesse at Georgia’s apartment. We’d gotten home just after dawn, apparently. Everyone was feeling a little tender as we attempted to sing happy birthday over a very hungover afternoon brunch, but I didn’t mind – the night had been worth it. For a night that I will probably never 100% clearly recollect, it was certainly a special and memorable birthday that I will never, ever forget.

This is Canada, eh?

When we weren’t tearing up the town at night, and Stuart and I spent a lot of time just hanging out and catching up, and also trying to cram as many authentic Canadian experiences into one week as humanely possible. If you come from the other side of the world, you might be forgiven for conflating the culture of Canada and the way of life in the US into one big North American culture… actually, the Canadians might not forgive you for that. But Stuart seemed to have a mental list of a whole bunch of small cultural delights that I simply must not leave Canada before trying. A few of these involved food – something that I was more than okay with – and we were often nursing our hangovers with coffee and donuts from Tim Hortons, or tucking into a steaming plate of poutine, a dish native to Quebec. I must admit I felt a little repulsed when Stuart insisted you had to cover the fries and gravy with cheese curds, but in the end it was delicious and totally worth it. Food comas ensued.

Breakfast of champions - a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

Breakfast of champions – a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

The disgustingly delicious poutine.

The disgustingly delicious poutine. I got mine with added chicken.

***

From national dishes to the favourite sports of the people, Stuart also made sure I didn’t leave the country without attending an ice hockey match. “This is my early birthday present to you,” he told me as he booked tickets for him, myself and Sam, another Australian guy who was also staying in the first hostel we were staying at. My birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks, but I would be back in New York by then, so I let Stuart buy the tickets to what he considered a very important Canadian cultural experience.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world – the closest I’d been to playing sport in a long time was learning how to rugby tackle with the Amsterdam Lowlanders. Australian football in any form does not interest me in the slightest, but when you’re in another country it’s a little easier to get excited about their sports because you can put it all down to experiencing their culture. And as I was about to find out, Canadians love their ice hockey. The two teams that were playing were the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadians. The Canadians were the team that Stuart backed, so he was especially excited to be watching them play in their home city. We were pretty much in the nosebleed seats of the famous Bell Centre arena, since the tickets were booked relatively last minute, but it was actually a pretty good view of the entire rink. And even from that far away, you couldn’t help but get totally into it, because the entire crowd was consistently roaring with cheers and applause and just going crazy in general.

Our view of Canada's favourite sport - ice hockey.

Our view of Canada’s favourite sport – ice hockey.

Matches of ice hockey are notorious for having their fair share of pretty aggressive, even violent, altercations. Our match was no exception, though from our vantage point it wasn’t always exactly clear when a fight had broken out or when there was just a longer than usual struggle for the puck. I have to admit it was a little exhilarating, watching the players swarm each other while the crowd erupted with simultaneous boos and cheers. I’m not usually one to condone violence, but in the controlled environment of a sporting arena I supposed I could make an exception. As well as watching the fights, I got to experience all the other novelties that come with attending such sporting events, such as the giant screens that put certain dancing audience members on display during halftime, or highlight an obvious couple in the hopes they’ll do an awkward kiss for the camera. And of course, we splurged a little on all of the over priced food – hot dogs, chips and pizza – as well as the huge cups of beer. In the end the Canadians were the winning team, so we all went home happy that evening.

***

There was one other famous building in Montreal that Stuart and I were yet to see, but it was located a little way off from the centre of the city, where the rest of the sights were. As it happened, Stuart had arranged to meet Paul, a cousin of his who was living in Montreal. They had some family-related things to see and do, but it involved driving around the city in Paul’s car, so I was more than happy to just tag along and be chauffeured around a little bit and showed some of the other sights of Montreal. The first stop was Saint Joseph’s Oratory, a Roman Catholic minor basilica and the largest church in Canada.

Saint Joseph's Oratory.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

I was probably a bit too close to get a good picture that does justice to the size of the church, but it was more of a drive-by visit and a quick photo op as Paul talked about the church and the history of the area of Montreal we were in. From there we drove up Mont Royal for a chance to view the entire city from the upper reaches of the hill. From there you could see all of central Montreal, the Saint Lawrence River and beyond.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

Afterwards we went back around the mountain to visit Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, one of the huge sprawling cemeteries that covered a large portion of Mont Royal. Stuart and Paul’s grandmother was buried there, and Paul wanted to show the memorial to Stuart. There was, however, a slight problem, which was the sheer size of the cemetery. Paul had written directions for how to find their grandmothers grave, but the twists and turns and plot numbers and street names were all a bit of a jumbled mess. We even stopped at a visitor centre to see if there was some kind of directory or catalogue, but it seemed like everyone had gone home for the day, because were wasn’t a soul in sight. We drove around for a while, but eventually we gave up. I guess it might have seemed like a wasted effort, but after some of the long days and big nights Stuart and I had been having, it was actually nice to just relax in the back of the car, and watch the haunting yet serene landscape slowly pass me by. After giving up on the search we went back to Paul’s house, where we had dinner with him and his wife – which is always appreciated by penny-pinching travellers – and where Paul also introduced me to Canadian rye whiskey. I have quite the taste for dark liquors, so I enjoyed it straight over ice. Strong but refreshing, it was the prefect way to end the weekend.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one that we were looking.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one for which we were looking.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

***

During the week we also did other things, some rather touristic, and some surprisingly local. We visited the Musée D’Art Contemporain De Montréal, or Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. We spent a good long while wandering through all the different rooms full of sculptures and colours and abstract art, although we weren’t allowed to take any photographs in the exhibition. We also did a little bit of shopping, and on Thursday evening Stuart even told me that he was going to meet with the local gay swim team. He’d been on the gay water polo team back in Sydney, and I guess he just had a knack for discovering and meeting up with these random gay sports teams no matter where we were in the world.

“You’re supposed to pay if you’re not a member, but I came there the other day before you got to Montreal”, Stuart said to me as we walked into the college building where the swimming team was meeting. “Just say you’re part of the gay team in Sydney and you’ll be fine.” I used to be a pretty strong competitive swimmer back in my teenage years, but since I’d been travelling I hadn’t really done much exercise, so I had agreed to come along. I dove – pardon the pun – straight into it, and it felt like I’d never stopped the rigorous swimming training of my adolescence. But while I remembered all the technique, my stamina and endurance weren’t what they used to be, and before the end of the session I had well and truly worked myself into an exhausted heap. I managed to pull through to the end, but when Stuart told me that he was going to stick around and play a game with the water polo team, I told him that he was on his own. Maybe if I hadn’t worn myself out with all the swimming first, but I was well and truly ready to go home. I did, however, have to answer the questions of a lot of curious members of the swim team, asking who I was and why I was here, with many of them just assuming that I had relocated here rather than just visiting for a week – I guess joining the local gay swim team isn’t exactly an ordinary tourist activity.

It was well worth it in the end, though – through the swim team I did meet a guy named Geoffrey. With his rugged beard, round spectacles and perfect smile, he was the most adorable little librarian I had ever met – extra points because that also meant he was pretty smart. I ended up meeting up with him later that evening, and we had a short but sweet romance during my week in Montreal. Maybe I didn’t see all the touristic options that Montreal had to offer – and did a few weird and completely random things with my time instead – but the unique and cute little memories like that will always make it 100% worth it.

Eye on London

On one wet and miserable evening in London I set out to meet a guy named Anthony who I had been talking to for a little while on one of the gay networking apps. The inescapable truth is that most guys on such apps are only looking for a quick hook up, but on the odd occasion you’ll find someone who is actually interested in having a long and decent conversation. From the chats we’d had I gathered that Anthony was a really sweet guy, a little bit of a nerd – between us we had shared a collection of geeky confessions – and I thought he was pretty cute. He lived nearby in Hackney, so after several nights of long conversations via the app we decided to meet up for drinks at some of the local watering holes. On the night we were set to meet it was bucketing down, but Anthony assured me the bar was still going to be “rammed”. I had a bit of a giggle at the terminology, and when he met me at our arranged meeting point I explained how the word ‘rammed’ had created a more vulgar vision of a gay bar in my mind. I’d struggled through thongs and flip-flops, and singlets and vests, but that was by far one of the strangest Australian/British English word confusions I came across in London.

Rammed, of course, meant full of people, and it seems that wet weather has become a way of life for the people of London that even the iciest downpours can’t keep them at home when a night of drinking beckons. The first place Anthony took me to was Nelsons Head, a smaller pub that was nice and toasty warm inside, and it was, as Anthony had said, rammed. We struggled through the crowds and made our way to the bar to order a few drinks, and ended up having to stand against one of the walls, unable to find a table or even any stools. We put our drinks down on the short bench that lined the walls, and I turned around to soak in the atmosphere. There was a lot of interesting and sometimes slightly erotic art that lined the walls, and high tables full of boisterous men and women who were slugging back pints like water and somehow still managing to not fall off their stools. Overall it was a relatively small venue, but I hadn’t read anything about it on any of the gay maps or guides I had picked up, so it was unlikely I ever would have made it there if I hadn’t met up with Anthony. We stayed there for a while, sipping our drinks and talking more about London, my travelling stories, and our range of geeky shared interests.

After a while we decided to move on to another venue, which was a little further away, but luckily the rain had pulled pack to barely a drizzle so we were fine to walk there. On the way there Anthony stopped to get money out, and he showed me the bizarre language options some ATM’s offer: English or Cockney. I asked him to do Cockney, but he flat out refused. “I have absolutely no idea what it says,” he laughed.
“But isn’t it still English?”
“Well, yes, but… It just isn’t.” Fair enough. I suppose it would have to be fairly different to warrant having its own language option, but it was as baffling as it was hilarious.
We were bound for The Joiners Arms, one of the more popular pubs on the eastern side of London, which I had just missed out on visiting last time I had been out in Shoreditch, although upon arriving at the bar I realised that it was less of a pub and more of a nightclub than I had originally thought. We had to get stamps on our wrists upon entering, although I think we arrived early enough so as not to have to pay, but after we’d ordered our first drinks and sat down at a table, we were informed we would have to stand up while they moved the tables in order to make room for the dance floor. From then on more and more people began arriving at The Joiners Arms, and the music moved from background ambience to the main focus. I love a good dance as much as the next party boy, but I wasn’t so much in the mood that evening, so Anthony and I just spent the rest of the night sitting on one of the sofas along the edge of the room, leaning into each other and having our conversations in brief outbursts of shouting to be heard over the music. Which of course turned into using our mouths for an exchange that was a little less verbal. In the end we called it a night and returned to the cold night to walk home, although Anthony let me stay the night with him so I didn’t have to walk the rest of the way home by myself. We drank tea and watched a few episodes of Family Guy on TV, and I was grateful to have such a cute man to cuddle on such a chilly evening.

***

I’d been telling Anthony about how riding the London Eye was one of the few majorly touristic things that I wanted to do while I was in London, but that I hadn’t wanted to do it by myself. Any attempts at finding other tourists or travellers to join me had failed, but Anthony had said it had been a long time since he had been on the Eye, and wouldn’t mind going again. I’d also mentioned I’d wanted to go at nighttime, something he had never done, so we made plans to meet up and get a bus over to the City of Westminster. We met at a halfway point that was close to a bus stop, and on the bus ride I saw Anthony doing something with his phone. I didn’t mean to pry, but I noticed he was in the middle of writing a status update on Facebook. The incomplete update read: “Thanks everyone for all the birthday love-” and he was staring at the screen, obviously trying to figure out what to say next.
“Um, what the hell?” I couldn’t just sit there and pretend I hadn’t read that. “It’s your birthday! Why didn’t you tell me?” Anthony just smiled and let out a shy chuckle.
“Ah, well, I’d forgotten what day it was when we made these plans. I wasn’t doing anything else anyway.” I looked at him slightly incredulously – the idea that anyone could forget their own birthday was just baffling to me – but then I just smiled.
“Well then, happy birthday! Tonight is just going to have to be extra special, isn’t it?”

We didn’t go straight to the city, but alighted a little further east. Once we got off the bus, I took us down to the water so that I could get a photo with Tower Bridge, arguably the most iconic sight of London along with Big Ben (I had been shocked, though, when Giles had told me that Tower Bridge was not called London Bridge, and that London Bridge was something completely different). From there we crossed the Thames and walked along the southern bank of the river, with Anthony pointing out some of the major sights along the way, such as the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral from across the water, the Tate Modern art gallery, and the Millennium Bridge, which perhaps excited me the most, as I remembered seeing it get destroyed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was also just a really pleasant walk, on a night that had considerably nicer weather than the last time I had met up with Anthony.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

The Shard.

The Shard.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

London Bridge.

London Bridge.

St Paul's Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

St Paul’s Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

We underestimated the walk, and by the time we got to the London Eye it had been almost an hour of walking, and darkness had well and truly set in. The good thing about arriving so late is that there was relatively no line, and so we purchased our tickets and walked right on in. From a distance, the London Eye looks like any regular ferris wheel, but once you’re up close you realise that you ride not in rickety little carriages, but fancy looking, high-tech berths that can comfortably hold about 15 to 20 people, and look like something out of a sci-fi film. There were a few other smaller groups of tourists in our berth with us, but they were spacious enough that you can move around to get a proper view of they city from all angles. In retrospect, I probably would have been able to see a lot more if I had gone during the day, but there was something about views of a city at night that I find a little breathtaking, and being there with Anthony also made it a little romantic. We stood there watching the scene unfold and the Eye took us higher and higher into the sky. Right beside us there was a small temporary theme park, with rides shooting up into the air, and across the Thames the Westminster Abbey and Big Ben glowed in darkness. In the distance we saw some fireworks going off, clusters of red sparks exploding on the horizon.
“Look! They knew it was my birthday!” Anthony joked. We both took some photos, but from the amount of pictures he was taking, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Anthony was the foreign tourist, not myself. But it was cute to see him enjoying himself so much – I’d unintentionally given him quite a memorable birthday.

Inside the London Eye berth.

Inside the London Eye berth.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

Anthony's birthday fireworks in the distance.

Anthony’s birthday fireworks in the distance.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

A full rotation of the London Eye takes about 30 minutes, so we had plenty of time to soak it all in. Upon returning to ground level, we stopped for a classy birthday dinner at McDonalds. We got it to go, and sat by the river to eat it as we watched the occasional vessel glide past us on the water. Then, hand in hand, we began the walk back along the river Thames, soaking up the riverside culture. The were lots of restaurants and cafes that overlooked the water, as well as parks with children running around and all kinds of street performers and entertainers. There was a stretch along the river where every single tree had been entwined with fairy lights, so we walked under a canopy of luminescence as we left the sounds of the inner city behind us. Eventually we crossed the Millennium Bridge and caught a bus back to Hackney, where we returned to Anthony’s place for more tea and Family Guy. And cuddles, of course. It turned out to be a really lovely evening, and I hoped that he’d enjoyed his spontaneous birthday celebrations as much as I had.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

Weird, Wonderful, Wasted: Exploring Berlin’s Gay Bars

“Robert, do you know what kind of car this is?” Dane said to me, his voice almost quivering with subtle excitement.
“Um… a really fancy one?” I was slightly off my face by that point in the evening, and hadn’t exactly retained my attention to detail.
“It’s a Mercedes,” Dane said as he stoked the impeccable leather seats. He had always had a thing for cars, so after a disappointing rejection from Berghain this seemed to be lifting his spirits. “There are so many taxis around here like this. How awesome is this?!” That’s right, the Mercedes we were in was a taxi, taking us away from the depths of east Berlin on a Sunday night. We had attempted to get into the notorious Berghain, but had been turned away on the grounds that we were too late, and the only people allowed back in were those who had stamps from previous admission.

The Berlin Wall during our late night trek out east.

The Berlin Wall during our late night trek out east.

Pre-'not getting into Berghain' selfies with Dane.

Pre-‘not getting into Berghain’ selfies with Dane.

So now we were heading back to Motzstraße, the heart of the gay district where Dane was staying. It was the Sunday evening of my first weekend in Berlin, and after my failure of a Saturday night, we had decided we would have one last night on the town before Dane left Berlin. “Let’s just go back to Schöneburg and check out Toms,” Dane had said. “It’s this bar that’s kind of infamous for its dark rooms. Could be kind of interesting to check out, right?” Back in Australia most licensed venues are not allowed to be sex-on-premises venues (SOPV), so there was something of a novelty behind a bar that had rooms that were dedicated solely to meeting and having sexual relations with other patrons. When we finally arrived, we sat down in the upstairs bar area and got some beers. The atmosphere literally oozed of sex, but in a dirty, filthy way, rather then anything refined or classically ‘sexy’ – I suppose that’s a matter of perspective though, but this was far from a cabaret speakeasy or a ‘gentlemen’s club’. There were numerous television screens mounted on the walls – all of them were playing hardcore gay porn. Dane and I both giggled to ourselves at the surreality of it all, and we made eyes with guys as they passed by, though just as frequently dodged glances from those who weren’t our types. While I wouldn’t have minded going to a bar with more of a dance floor, or a setting that better enabled conversation, there was clearly only a few reasons most people came to Toms: cruising, picking up, and hooking up.

After downing a little more liquid courage, I turned to Dane. “Are you gonna go downstairs?” The entrance down into the darkroom looked like a looming cave in the corner of the bar.
“Only if you come with me,” he said.
“What, for moral support? Need someone to hold your hand?” I teased, but in all honesty I was just as curious to check out what really happened down there. I mean, I’ve seen the entire series of Queer As Folk, so I had a pretty good idea, but it’s still something that you really just have to see for yourself. Dane and I are pretty good friends, and weren’t too shy when it came to being naked in front of each other, so we turned out to be pretty good partners in crime when it came to exploring the dark rooms. We descended into the depths with a pact to look out for one another, and each managed to do our own thing while we were down there without ever really straying too far from each others sides. Dane was newly single, and I was… well, I don’t really have a reason, but it’s safe to say we were both a little adventurous when we were down there. But it was fun, albeit a little seedy, and an undeniably interesting experience which served as my introduction to Berlin gay bars.

***

Later on during the week, after Dane had moved on to the next destination in his trip, I decided I wanted to check out some more of the gay nightlife. I was given some advice about where to go by Donatella and Lola and some of the other housemates, but I didn’t have anyone to go with. It was a Thursday night, and I was planning to head to Schöneburg on the Friday night for the opening party of the Christopher Street Day pride weekend, so I wasn’t sure if I should head to the same place or try and find something in a different area. After striking up a few conversations with some guys on one of the various gay chat applications on my phone, I finally found someone who wasn’t looking for casual sex and was also planning to go out for some drinks later. His name was Micha, and it turned out he would be meeting a friend at a bar called Rauschgold, which happened to be less than a ten minute walk away from Donatella’s apartment. He said I was welcome to join them, so I got myself ready and headed out into was what becoming a stormy and rainy evening.

As I scurried inside out of the pouring rain, I was hit with a sensation that I can only describe as the love child of nostalgia and déjà vu. There’s something about visiting that kind of gay bar that can make you feel like you’re right at home, no matter what part of the world you’re in – if that’s the kind of bar you choose to frequent in your hometown, I suppose. It was essentially Kreuzburg’s version of Stonewall in Sydney – rainbow flags and a whole host of other sparkly decorations adorned the walls, the sound system was playing a combination of the latest pop hits and classic gay anthems, and there seemed to be at least one drag queen present at any given moment. Though when I arrived it wasn’t too busy, and I was able to spot Micha fairly easily. He was with a female friend of his, so I introduced myself to them both and sat with them over a couple of beers, but after a while Micha’s friend had to leave to get home to her teenage son.
“No, let’s not stay here,” Micha said when I went to order another beer. “It’s not going to get much better than this. Do you want to see some other better bars around here?” I was delighted that he had offered – locals always know the best places to go – so I took him up on the offer and we jumped in a cab to our next destination.

***

We found ourselves at a bar called Möbel Olfe. “It means furniture shop, in English,” Micha explained to me, “which is what it used to be before it became a bar.” Thursday was ‘gay night’, so other than it being crammed full with men and not a woman in sight, there was nothing overtly gay or camp about the place. There were bits of bare wall behind a broken façade and the drinks list was written on the tiled parts of the wall in a way that would be easily mistaken for graffiti at a passing glance. Then there were high stools and tables made of wood, and a slick wooden bar that was receiving a lot of attention. Throw in a crowd that was rather impeccably dressed, yet packed together like tinned sardines, and the unescapable veil of cigarette smoke that hung above us and the whole scene really just seemed like a mess of contradictions that actually came together to create a really cool bar. “This is a particularly trendy place, I guess.” Micha said as he returned to our table from the bar with our drinks. The room was packed – he literally had to squeeze his way through the tightly pressed crowd to get back to me, and even as we sat there, it was inevitable that we would be bumped and jostled by the stream of people navigating their way through the bar around us.

“Where else have you been in Berlin so far?” Micha asked me. I told him that I’d visited Toms last weekend, and the expression that came over his face informed me that the place indeed had a reputation – one that it had no doubt lived up to.
“I guess it’s an okay bar, if that’s your sort of thing,” he finally said.
“It was more just the novelty of the whole dark room thing,” I said with a shrug. “It’s not exactly the place you can go to have a conversation though.”
Micha let out a small laugh, and slowly shook his head, almost knowingly. “No… No, it’s definitely not.” He motioned around the bar we were in now. “This is a pretty typically Berlin place, though. Sometimes it can be full of… well, they’re called Nylons.”
“Nylons?”
“Yes. It stands for ‘New Yorkers and Londoners’. They’re people who come to Berlin for… Well, they’re people who are like…” Micha cleared his throat, and when he spoke again it was an airy, mocking voice that was quite clearly taking the piss. “I’m over here for six months, working on a project,” with an emphasised snooty tone on the final word. I let out a little giggle, but he continued to explain. “You know, so many people who come over from cities like London or New York, self-described creative types who think its so trendy and artistic to live in Berlin while working… on a project.” I laughed again, but Micha just shrugged his shoulders. “Ah, it’s not that bad. It’s just a more… shallow idea of what Berlin’s all about.” I’d spoken to a couple of locals now, about the kind of people who live here and the kind of people it attracts, so I guess I got where he was coming from. It made me want to avoid being a typical tourist more than ever, though I was glad my own city wasn’t included in the acronym. Though at this point I was yet to meet them, I would remember that conversation the following evening when I met Giles and the other London boys, and have a little chuckle to myself.

***

After a couple of drinks at Möbel Olfe, Micha and I headed out into the rain and around the corner to a third and final bar for the evening, a place called Roses. “It’s a very camp place”, he forewarned me as we approached the entrance. “The walls are… well, they’re… you’ll see.” As we stepped into the bar, I felt like I had been thrown into a funky Austin Powers movie with a gay twist. I understood what Micha had meant about the walls – they looked like an extension of the carpet, covered in long, thick pink fur. I had to resist the urge to stroke it, as though it was the matted mane of some visibly homosexual cat. But the rest of the club was just as eccentric – fairy lights, homoerotic art, quirky and chic furniture. The lights were dim and the room was almost hazy, yet the smell in the air suggested there wasn’t just tobacco being consumed in or around this venue. We sat down after getting our drinks, and I took a sip of mine. I instantly recoiled, making a face as I placed the drink on the table. “Oh my God… That drink is so strong!” That was a big call coming from someone like me, but it honestly felt like I was drinking 2 parts bourbon, 1 part Coke.
“Yeah,” Micha said as he took a careful sip from his own drink. “I’ve sometimes wondered whether they intentionally spike drinks in this place to make people party harder. I’ve have some crazy night after ending up at Roses.” A comforting thought.
“Well, at the very least they’ve spiked it with extra alcohol,” I said as I took another sip.

I wish I could add further details to some more of the conversations I had at Roses, because my vague and blurry memory tells they were quite humorous. I think I met another Australian, a girl who was with a gay friend of hers. Their personalities were somewhere between hipsters and divas, and I think I successfully managed to offend one or both of them by probably being a little too honest about what I thought of them. Then Micha and I also chatted to a Swedish girl who was barely 18-years-old and a complete drunken mess. It was her first time travelling and she just seemed so happy and excited about every single thing that was happening. Which would have been sweet, if it weren’t for the fact she could hardly stand up without resting the majority of her weight on us. Which meant she wasn’t going anywhere, and we were stuck with her emphatic, high-pitched, excited and incessant babbling. Micha left me at one point for a cigarette, and eventually the girl’s 19-year-old boyfriend came to help her, but it very much appeared to be the blind leading the blind as they stumbled out of the bar. When I made a trip to the bathrooms, I was stopped by an American guy. “Hey!” he called into my ear over the music, “I remember you from that other place!”
I stopped to enquire further – I won’t lie, I got a tiny little kick out of already being recognised. “Which one?”
“The… The furniture place,” he said through some mild drunken slurring.
“Möbel Olfe?! Yeah, I was just there with my friend!” I replied, probably also slurring my words due to our obscenely strong drinks.
“Do you know where we can get some…” The guy began to asked me, completely out of the blue. I stared at him expectantly, while he stared at me blankly. He was obviously about as wasted as I felt, probably more. “Do you know where we can get some stronger stuff?”
“The drinks here are so strong!” I exclaimed for the second time tonight.
“No, I mean like-”
Oh!” And right there, I momentarily felt like I was back at ARQ in Sydney, being hunted down by people who just assumed I was the type of guy who would be selling GHB. “Sorry, can’t help you buddy,” I said as I slipped away and continued on to the bathroom.

***

When we left Roses, feeling extremely more wasted than when we had arrived, Micha said he was ready to call it a night.
“Me too,” I agreed. “But first: I need food!” Micha just laughed, ushered us into a taxi, and directed us back towards Rauschgold – conveniently in the direction of where we both lived. Except we got out a little earlier at a place called Curry 36 – and so began what will probably be my life long addiction to currywurst. One of the few original recipes the province of Berlin has to offer to German cuisine, it is now definitely one of my favourites. It’s just a standard sausage cooked in curry spices, but served with ketchup, mayonnaise and a side of chips, it was exactly the kind of food I needed after a night of drinking. Dangerously, it was located just around the corner and down the road from Donatella’s apartment – this would definitely not be the only time I ate currywurst while I was in Berlin.

Currywurst -it tastes even better than it looks!

Currywurst -it tastes even better than it looks!

Micha and I with one of his friends.

Micha and I with one of his friends.

Micha and I at his birthday party on Saturday.

Micha and I at his birthday party on Saturday.

After trying to call Eva – who had our shared key – to no avail, I eventually had to crash on the couch at Micha’s place. We walked back to his apartment as the 4:30am sun was rising, drunk and tired and ready to sleep. I was really happy that I’d decided to go and meet Micha – he was a nice and friendly guy who had voluntarily taken the time to show me the nightlife in his city. As it happened, it was actually his birthday that coming Saturday, and he said I was more than welcome to join him and his friends for the open bar tab he had planned at Rauschgold. Never one to shy away from free alcohol, I wandered on down after the Christopher Street Day parade on Saturday and got to know some of Micha’s friends. They were all lovely, but when they asked me where I’d been in Berlin so far and I mentioned going to the party at Goya on Friday, they all wore the same slightly pained expression.
“Why do you all make that face when I say that!” I exclaimed in my raised octave voice that creeps in after a few too many strong vodkas.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” they would say. “It’s just very touristy. Have you been to Berghain yet? Now that’s a real Berlin experience.”
“Well, I am a tourist – cut me just a little slack!” I laughed. The talk of Berghain continued to intrigue me though. Micha had shown me a bunch of other clubs, but the elusive warehouse party had thus far evaded me. With intentions to leave after this weekend, I was running out of time, but it was one of the few places that I knew I had to visit…